I feel like Dorothy – a young (well ok, youngish) girl plucked from the reality based pragmatic world of the farm – and dropped into Oz where fantasy, fiction, and myths are accepted as reality.
My proverbial tornado is the media storm that is swirling around antibiotic use in livestock. The insanity hit a new peak last week when The Dr. Oz show did a segment on the risk of antibiotic use in meat. I sat in frustrated disbelief as he presented no less than four falsehoods in the introduction alone. Dr. Oz was exactly right when he stated that the rise in antibiotic resistance is a growing global health threat. Unfortunately, that is about where his facts ended.
Now, before I get into this let me share my credentials and conflicts of interest. First – I speak for myself. I do not represent any industry, agency, or organization. I am a beef producer, a veterinarian, and an epidemiologist with a PhD based on research in antibiotic use and resistance in pigs. I have worked for the federal government, the pharmaceutical industry, and the major livestock and poultry industries on this topic. I eat meat. And I confidently feed conventionally raised meat to my family.
The Dr. Oz show starts with the infamous info-graphic of 80/20. I.e. 80% of the antibiotics used in the US are used livestock and only 20% in people. (Note –The Dr. Oz show is American and was referring to the US system but everything I write applies to Canada as well as the US). This figure is extensively quoted by media and can be referenced back to a publication “Hogging it” which made a back-of-the-napkin guestimate. Even if this figure were accurate, it is based on outdated data from 1998. For years, I have advocated for better antimicrobial use reporting in Canada’s livestock and poultry. Without facts, I am a hypocrite for calling out the use of such guestimates. It is past time for the industry takes on this responsibility. But nevertheless, it is frustrating when alarmist figures are used to get you to tune in to a program.
The introduction goes on to twist three more “ facts”.
ONE: Antimicrobial use is NOT banned in livestock and poultry in Europe. Yes, growth promotion use of medically important antibiotics is restricted. But antimicrobial use for disease prevention and treatment are not. Actually regulatory differences have led to a markedly higher use of antibiotics “Critically Important to Human Health” in Europe than in North America. Resistance to THESE drugs poses the most real and direct threat to human health.
TWO: The CDC has not called for a significant reduction in antibiotics in the animals we eat. Under FAQ the CDC website states, “No, we cannot stop all antibiotic use in food animals. Antibiotics are valuable tools for reducing animal disease and suffering. But decisions about what antibiotics to use and how to use them must be made with consideration of their potential impact on human health”. In fact, the 2013 report by the CDC which provided the estimate that 2 million Americans become ill annually with resistant bacteria reported only 4 of the 18 threats as even remotely related to antimicrobial use in livestock. Unsurprisingly, the CDC was roundly criticized by non-scientific press for the lack of blame on agriculture.
THREE: Dr. Oz wants you to believe that there are “No limits to the antibiotic use in your meat”. Antibiotics available in Canada have been closely scrutinized by Health Canada for safety and efficacy. High-concern products face ongoing monitoring for their effect on resistance. And Canada’s veterinary pharmaceutical industry is voluntarily ceasing the use of medically important antimicrobials for production purposes and working to increase veterinary oversight in all antimicrobial use decisions. Beyond the regulations that determine what products are available, farmers are regulated with regards to what antimicrobials, what dose, and what withdrawal time (i.e. number of days between last exposure and slaughter) they can use. At slaughter the meat is monitored for antibiotic residues to ensure producers follow regulations. Stiff penalties are in place for any who do not.
I whole heartedly agree that ANTIBIOTIC RESISTANCE IS A HEALTH THREAT. Because veterinarians and farmers use antibiotics they contribute to the problem. So does your family doctor when they treat your child for an infection. Solutions to this threat require changes in agriculture along with human health care and consumer behaviours. Fortunately, the risk posed by meat can be eliminated through proper handling and cooking of in the kitchen.
My frustration is with media designed to lay blame and raise tempers. Sensational headlines rather than critical thought is the flavour of the day in journalism. But we will never find solutions by sharing misinformation and pitting stakeholders against each other. If Dr. Oz really wanted to inform you about this issue he would have invited a veterinarian and producer.
Livestock and poultry producers practice antibiotic stewardship and strive for constant improvement. Unfortunately the best practices will not protect our access to antibiotics if you don’t know about them and instead get your information from the likes of Dr. Oz. RETAINING OUR PRIVLEDGE TO USE ANTIMICROBIALS IS VITAL TO ENSURING THE HEALTH AND WELFARE OF OUR STOCK. Clearly, part of our responsibility is to share science-based facts with consumers and to openly explain why and how we use antibiotics to raise healthy, safe meat.
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